Benjamin Franklin, Yale 1753 Hon. M.A.

Bust of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a statesman, scientist, philosopher, and writer. From pioneering new inventions to founding new institutions, Franklin pursued knowledge in the service of humanity. His contributions to government, science, and civic life made him famous in his own day and have left a remarkable legacy to generations since.

Franklin’s extraordinary life began in humble circumstances. Born in Boston, he was the son of a candle and soap maker, one of eleven living brothers and sisters. His father, Josiah, hoped that Franklin would become a minister and initially enrolled him Boston’s South Grammar School. But circumstances intervened, and his last formal year of schooling came in 1716. He worked in in his father’s shop until he was indentured to his brother, James, a printer in Boston.

Franklin found his vocation as a printer. Although he learned the trade from his brother, he eventually tired of James’s cruelty. He fled Boston and settled in another growing colonial port city, Philadelphia, where he found work in another print shop. In 1729, Franklin purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette, and under his control it became one of the leading publications in North America. He also began a lifetime of prolific writing, publishing scores of essays under various pseudonyms. One of his most beloved personae was featured in Poor Richard’s Almanack, the repository of Franklin’s legendary wit. The publication ran continuously from 1732 to 1758, gaining a broad audience and printing up to 10,000 copies per year. Franklin’s Poor Richard amused readers with quips such as “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead,” and offered edifying advice to suit the times, such as “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” According to one historian, Franklin earned “an international reputation as a writer of hoaxes, satires, essays, and letters.”[1] In doing so, he not only entertained the colonies but also helped shape a new people and a new identity—the “Americans.”

While establishing himself as a successful printer, Franklin also started a family. In 1730 he wed Deborah Read in a common-law marriage. He and Deborah raised his first son, William, who had been born to another woman. The couple’s first son together, Francis Folger Franklin, was born in 1732 but died of smallpox at the age of four. Their daughter, Sarah, was born in 1744.

Franklin never shied away from divisive political issues. As his reputation as a writer and a printer grew, so did his interest and involvement in politics. In 1736, he was elected clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. The following year, he was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia, a position he held until 1753. Both roles reflected his growing stature in the colonial community. In 1748, Franklin retired from his career as a printer, devoting more time to his experiments on electricity but also redoubling his political and civic activities. He served as a Philadelphia councilman and as justice of the peace, and in 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania assembly. As tensions between Britain and the colonies grew, Franklin used his platform to urge unity among the colonists.

In one of his better-known editorials, he urged the colonies to unite, with the message “JOIN OR DIE.” He would continue to advocate for unity among the far-flung colonists for the next twenty years.

Franklin was a cosmopolitan statesman who spent many years traveling in England and Europe. In 1757 he traveled to London as an agent for Pennsylvania. His primary mission was to lobby the king on behalf of the colony, particularly regarding the propriety lands owned by the powerful Penn family. His travels in England convinced Franklin that the king did not understand conditions in America.

When Franklin returned to Philadelphia, he continued to promote colonial interests by writing essays and pamphlets. In the 1760s, he designed cartoons and wrote dozens of essays against the hated Stamp Act. Franklin’s intimate involvement in colonial controversies and politics only deepened with time. In 1775, Franklin joined other early American luminaries as a delegate to the second Continental Congress, where he helped draft the Articles of Confederation and the Declaration of Independence. Although Franklin’s radical egalitarianism and democratic ideals did not always win the day, he left his mark on the discussions and decisions made in those heady times. He spent most of the war years as a minister to France, where his influence shaped the terms of the subsequent peace. After the American Revolution, Franklin served as the U.S. minister to France from 1778 to 1785. Upon his return, he served three terms as the president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania—essentially as the governor. In 1787 he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

Even among a generation that elevated the practice of politics and diplomacy, Franklin distinguished himself as an extraordinary statesman. He is the only person who signed all four of the major documents establishing the United States: the Declaration of Independence; the Treaty of Alliance, Amity, and Commerce with France; the Treaty of Paris; and the Constitution. Through his international travels and domestic publications, Franklin helped shape the United States and its relationship with the rest of the world.

Franklin relished exploring new ideas and testing them through experimentation. As the late Edmund Morgan, Sterling Professor of History at Yale, wrote, “Franklin could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick. He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why.” This “insatiable curiosity” led to his study of meteorology, demography, and ocean currents. He charted the Gulf Stream and developed designs for improved transoceanic ships. Most famous for his experiments with electricity, Franklin invented the lightning rod, eliminating a source of destruction that had plagued humankind for thousands of years. His other inventions—the glass harmonica, Franklin stove, catheter, a “grabber” for reaching items on high shelves, and bifocal glasses—reflect his quest to improve the human experience through science and technology.

In his own day, Franklin’s scientific discoveries earned him international acclaim. In 1756 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in England, and in 1772 he was initiated into the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris—the last American for a century to earn the honor. Ten editions of his book on electricity were published in four languages—all before the American Revolution. “The author of every book on electricity in the latter half of the eighteenth century either referred to Benjamin Franklin by name—and not alone for his lightning kite or rod—or employed the concepts which he introduced into electrical science,” according to one historian. Indeed, Franklin’s reputation as a scientist preceded his accomplishments as a statesman and may have laid the groundwork for his subsequent diplomatic missions.[2]

An innovator in all areas of life, Franklin established new civic institutions to answer contemporary problems. One biographer has called Franklin “the most civic-minded colonial American,” and indeed his list of accomplishments reflects his insatiable drive to improve the lives of people in his adopted city of Philadelphia. In 1727 he founded the Junto, a club dedicated to discussion and debate.[3] This group of friends and associates shared books, creating a library for their own use. Franklin, however, was struck by the need for a more formal institution. In 1731, he founded the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first subscription library. Throughout these years Franklin also expanded his own intellectual horizons. He learned German and French and studied Spanish, Italian, and Latin. He read widely in religion, morality, natural philosophy, and ethics, all while building a successful business and becoming a respected political figure in Philadelphia. In 1743, he established the American Philosophical Society.

Franklin’s efforts were not limited to high-minded or abstract pursuits of learning. Instead, as in his scientific experiments, Franklin joined his love of knowledge with practical applications. In burgeoning colonial cities, fires and disease contributed to injury, poverty, and unnecessary deaths, and several of Franklin’s endeavors addressed these concerns. In 1736 he established the Union Fire Brigade, perhaps better known as Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade, the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia. In 1751, he started the Philadelphia Contributorship for Insuring Homes from Loss by Fire, the first fire insurance company. That same year he helped found North America’s first public hospital, the Pennsylvania Hospital. He also worked to improve sanitary and safety conditions in Philadelphia, advocating for improvements to policing, street cleaning, sidewalks, road paving, lighting, and the city docks.[4]

The self-taught Franklin was committed to expanding education opportunities for others. In 1751, he helped establish the Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania, primary and secondary schools that educated the children of artisans, gentry, and the poor in Philadelphia. In 1755, under the leadership of Franklin and his associates, the College of Philadelphia opened its doors; today it is known as the University of Pennsylvania. Thirty years later, the third institution of higher learning in the state, and the first bilingual and coeducational college, was named Franklin College (today, Franklin and Marshall College) in recognition of the large sum of £200 that Franklin contributed towards its establishment.

Given his lifetime of learning and innovation, it is fitting that Franklin’s relationship to Yale begins with a library. Ezra Stiles, a member of the Yale College Class of 1746 and the seventh president of the university, corresponded with Franklin on many occasions over a period of decades. In 1755, Stiles delivered a Latin oration honoring Franklin when the famous American visited the college. They began corresponding about their mutual interest in magnetism, and according to one historian, Franklin’s research on thermometers “paved the way for Stiles’s lifelong work in the field of thermometrics.”[5] Later, Franklin was instrumental in the Yale president’s receipt of an honorary degree in sacred theology from Edinburgh. Stiles, therefore, sometimes solicited Franklin’s help in procuring books for the college library. Most learned books were only available in England or Europe, and Stiles occasionally asked the esteemed statesman to acquire books for Yale when he was abroad. In 1790, for example, Stiles wrote in diary that he had received “a Box of Books from Dr Franklin aet. [age of] 85, a Present to the College Library.”

Franklin continues to play a significant role in the Yale University Library today. The Franklin Collection, acquired in 1935, includes the most extensive group of materials by, about, and related to Franklin and his times. In addition to 30,000 pages of extant correspondence, the collection also includes 15,000 books and pamphlets in addition to remarkable paintings and art objects. The Franklin Collection is one of the most important holdings in Yale’s library. A digital version of the Franklin Papers, created and maintained by the Packard Humanities Institute, is available online, making Franklin’s world and words freely available to scholars and the public around the globe. The Franklin Collection at Yale makes it possible for new generations to discover this remarkable individual anew through the original sources.

In 1743, Franklin’s Poor Richard mused, “Let all Men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly.” Franklin took his own advice, leaving behind a voluminous record of his own life that both illuminates and obscures. One of the most perplexing mysteries concerns Franklin’s views on slavery and African Americans. Early in his career, Franklin printed ads for runaway slaves in the Pennsylvania Gazette, but he also printed some antislavery pamphlets. Like one in five white households in colonial Philadelphia, Franklin and his wife Deborah owned African-American slaves. They purchased at least seven people over the course of their lives. In his will, Franklin forgave his son-in-law a debt on the condition that he free Bob, one of the slaves Franklin had given him and his daughter Sally years earlier. Yet in the 1750s, he supported a school for enslaved children and free African-Americans in Philadelphia and served on its board for many years. In 1787 he became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, an organization that worked through political and judicial channels on behalf of the enslaved, and that promoted the cause of education for African-Americans. In the last year of his life, Franklin delivered a petition to Congress urging it to “devise means for removing this Inconsistency [slavery] from the Character of the American People.” He reminded them that “equal Liberty was originally the Portion, & is still the Birthright of all men.”[6] Finally, Franklin’s last word on slavery—indeed his last piece of public writing on any topic—comes to us through a satirical persona. As Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, an imaginary Algerian prince defending the enslavement of Christians, Franklin condemned the institution of slavery in no uncertain terms.[7]

Ezra Stiles corresponded with Franklin for the last time in 1790, asking if he would donate a portrait for the college’s collection to be displayed along with a recently completed portrait of Elihu Yale. Stiles wrote, “We wish to be possest of the Resemblance of the American Patriot & Philosopher.” Franklin responded modestly, but he was pleased with the request:

“The Honour you propose doing me by placing mine in the same Room with [the portrait of Elihu Yale], is much too great for my Deserts; but you always had a Partiality for me, and to that it must be ascribed. I am however too much obliged to Yale College, the first learned Society that took Notice of me, and adorned me with its Honours, to refuse a Request that comes from it thro’ so esteemed a Friend.”

Franklin offered to sit for a new portrait and agreed to “cheerfully pay the Expense.” However, he warned his friend Stiles to be quick about the work. The artist, he suggested, “must not long delay setting about it, or I may slip thro’ his Fingers, for I am now in my 85th year, and very infirm….” Unfortunately, Franklin was correct about how little time he had left for portrait-sitting: he died just six weeks later, and the portrait for Yale College never materialized. In 2016, over two centuries after Stiles’s request, the “first learned Society that took Notice of” Franklin will make good on the two men’s agreement to memorialize the patriot and philosopher on Yale’s campus.[8]

Further Reading

Herbert, Eugenia W., and Claude Anne Lopez. The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family. New York: Norton, 1975.

Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Lemay, J.A. Leo. The Life of Benjamin Franklin, vols. 1, 2, 3. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, 2008.

Morgan, Edmund Sears. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Waldstreicher, David. Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

Online Sources

Franklin Papers at Yale
http://franklinpapers.yale.edu/

Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Frank Woodworth Pine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1916. Project Gutenberg Ebook.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm

For the Library of Congress Bibliography on Franklin
https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/franklin/bibliography.html

Materials related to Franklin’s life and work at the Library of Congress
https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/franklin/loc.html


[1] J. A. Leo Lemay, “Franklin, Benjamin,” http://www.anb.org/articles/01/01-00298.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Apr 24 2016.

[2] I. Bernard Cohen, Franklin and Newton: an inquiry into speculative Newtonian experimental science and Franklins work in electricity as an example thereof (Philadelphia : American Philosophical Society, 1956), 36.

[3] To read the queries for admission to Junto in the Yale Franklin Papers: http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=1&page=255a.

[4] J.A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 402.

[5] Cora E. Lutz, “Ezra Stiles and the Library,” The Yale University Library Gazette 56, no. 1/2 (1981): 13–21. Stiles’s diary is available online: https://archive.org/stream/literarydiaryez03stilgoog#page/n402/mode/2up.

[6] Quoted in “at the end an abolitionist?” p 294. Original petition https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/franklin/.

[7] On Franklin’s views and actions related to slavery and African-Americans, see Gary B. Nash, “Franklin and Slavery,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 150, no. 4 (2006): 618–635; David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004); Emma Jones Lapsansky-Werner, “At the End, an Abolitionist?” in Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, eds. Page Talbott, Richard S. Dunn, and John C. Van Horne, 273-296 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[8] Bernhard Knollenberg, “Benjamin Franklin and Yale,” The Yale University Library Gazette 26, no. 1 (1951): 26.